CHAPTER ELEVEN (cont.)
THE POETIC REALITY OF ANAÏS NIN
The dream in this first stage of Anaïs Nin’s work is not a source of illumination but a submergence. It is closely associated with the kind of love which is ingrown: that for father, sister, members of the same sex, all related to the cult of Narcissism, or self contemplation and self-love.
The route through which she moves is, as she calls it in the beginning: the route of the dream. But the dream has to be protected from the pervasive character of external reality. In this sense the first world of Anaïs Nin resembles that of symbolist heroines like Melisande, Herodiade, Deirdre: it is a distinct evasion of the brutality of exterior reality, effacing that reality to put in its place unrealizable loves, blurred, misty visions, subterranean tunnels constantly confronted by impasses, negative images of attritions and wastelands similar to T.S. Eliot’s scenery in the first four lines of The Waste Land or of Stefan George’s Algabal: garden of decapitated frees, dead meteors, dried semen, sceneries in which nature’s power of metamorphoses and transmutation has failed. Even the image of the sea and the ship, which are in general liberating images, convey in the early work of Anaïs Nin just the opposite impact. The sea is associated with curtain, veil, blanket: My first vision of earth was water veiled. I am of the race of men and women who see all things through this curtain of the sea, she says at the beginning of House of Incest. The isle of non-reality and non-existence toward which she voyages is precisely the lost continent of Atlantis where the poetic vision of Anaïs Nin mingles with the lost sounds, lost colors, soundless music, and in a stale where there is no cold, no heat and no hunger, and no weeping. Fishes and flowers have the countenances and contours of unreality and artifice. Even in her use of present participles she creates an atmosphere of weightlessness reminiscent of Mallarmé’s Coup de dés.
The first book, conceived under the sign of dissolution, transforms even the most common symbol of movement and displacement, the ship, into a shipwreck, a skeleton of a ship, choked in its own sails, sails which become ripped apart in a later image. The language spoken is the language of nerves: The shadow of death running after each word so that they wither before she has finished uttering them.
The mirror image is a purely Narcissist one in these early writings. It reflects the self-image and the self-love even in the guise of a brother, a sister, or a woman likeness. Our love of each other is like one long shadow kissing without hope or reality.
But if we have piled up the evidence to bring into focus the archetypal image of the Symbolist hero or heroine, we must adjust our lenses. The interesting word in the last quotation is without hope, which in the act of desperation implies a desire for release and carries a built-in indictment of a condition. As in a musical composition, there is a point where the music turns, modulates from one key to another, so in the House of Incest there occurs a turning point, after which the ethereal beauty of the world of illusion carries an element of self-censure, brought to its climax in Under a Glass Bell and Winter of Artifice. Without hope becomes an anguished drive for self-demystification and liberation. The narrator and her alter ego, Jeanne, reach a position of confrontation and disparity. The narrator is led to the innermost haunts of the House of Incest, into a room without window, where the beat of time is lost and where everything takes on the static posture of finality; but the narrator refuses to accept the situation for the descriptions have a built-in vocabulary of criticism:
The collision between their resemblances, shedding the odor of tamarisk and sand, of rotted shells and dying sea-weeds, their love like the ink of squids, a banquet of poisons.
Through the image of a modern Christ who dreamed of having his skin peeled off so that he would be receptive to all the impacts of sensory reality, the wish is spoken:
If only we could all escape from this house of incest, where we only love ourselves in the other, if only I could save you all from yourselves, said the modern Christ.
There are two other images in the closing sequences of the House of Incest that prefigure the conversion: The tunnel that leads out of the house opens up into broad daylight. The other is an image of a dancer who dances away from those who are trapped in the House of Incest and gravitates toward daylight. And she danced; she danced with the music and with the rhythm of earth’s circles; she turned with the earth turning, like a disk, turning all faces to light and to darkness evenly, dancing towards daylight.
So if is on the word daylight that the House of Incest ends, just as Rimbaud’s Une Saison en Enfer, with which if has been compared, ends in dawn and with the rejection of night, and moves toward freedom.
In the next volume the piece called Under a Glass Bell is a portrait of Jeanne in which the narrator can take a more objective stance and cast an ironic look of censure. Jeanne speaks in a confessional tone; she walks into a house in which mirrors cover the walls and ceilings. The picture is striking and terrifying:
Jeanne walked into the house and entered the room of mirrors. Ceilings of mirrors floors of mirrors, windows of quicksilver opening on windows of quicksilver. The air was made of gelatine. Around her hair there was a saffron aureole and her skin was a sea shell, an egg shell. There was a lunar wax light on the rim of her shoulder. Woman imprisoned in the stillness of mirrors washed only by jellied colors… On her breast grew flowers of dust and no wind came from earth to disturb them.
The narrator’s own confessional about her dream-trapped condition is manifest in the next piece called “The Labyrinth” in which the pages of the diary are likened to the labyrinth after she has given us several other images of labyrinth from nature’s own pattern: soft turning canals of ears, honeycomb of ivory-white cells, leaf pattern of intricate flowers, network of streets like seashells. After the motif is established we proceed to the metaphor of the diary: Serpentines of walls without doorways, desires without issues. I was lost in the labyrinth of my confessions, among the veiled faces of my acts unveiled only the diary. I heard the evening prayer, the cry of solitude recurring every night… The white orifice of the endless cave opened. On the rim of it stood a girl of eleven years old, carrying the diary in a little basket. In her words it is interesting to note that, at the beginning the diary is a means of refuge, which, in retrospect, the author views with a certain degree of self-censure, manifest in words such as lost, solitude, veil and mutilation. Even as in the novels, the purpose of the diary as it reaches the level of publication will be changed from refuge to release, as Anaïs Nin reaches a change of posture.
“The All-Seeing” seems to be a transitional piece. We are introduced to another labyrinthian character; but this time there is in him the resonance of reality even as the sound of the waves inside of a seashell. It is a story of the inadequacy of dream conceived as detachment from reality. And in this short piece we have premonitions of a new concept of the dream, it is the resolution of the dichotomy between dream and reality. The conciliation of the notion of opposites; Two people who love the dream above all else would soon vanish altogether. One of them must be on earth to hold the other down. And the pain of being held down by the earth that is what our love for others will be.
The narrator, described by Jean, seems like a prisoner about to be liberated, whose love of other prisoners is the only obstacle in the way of the open door.
Winter of Artifice is a crossroad. As the father image fades, the narrator gravitates toward the summer solstice. She realizes that the music of the father is still-life meditation. Music becomes rhythm, vibration, the spiral leading to reality. It is to be noted that if we compare the synchronization of the novels with the diary we find that at this time the author comes in contact with Jungian psychology, and in Voices we see psychiatry as a releasing agent. The dream’s position is transformed. The Jungian device leaves its impact as the author accepts the motto: from the dream outward. Henceforth the images of descent into consciousness and dream, the spirals of downward movement are replaced by a ladder intentioned for climbing upward even if there is the danger of fire at the lop. The censure of a total kind of introspection is more explicit: Bring me one who knows that the dream without exit, without explosion, without awakening, is the passageway to the world of the dead (Ladders, p.151)
Now it is interesting to observe that although in the most fertile era of the surrealists Anaïs Nin was writing in a symbolist vein, the one surrealist she was closest to was Antonin Artaud, the very one who in terms of philosophy and physiognomy was the farthest removed from the surrealists. He could join the surrealist world only through laudanum. Pierre, as he is called in “Je suis le plus malade des surrealistes,” is a creature who draws everything inward, a brother of Jeanne, and of Jean, and of all the other refugees from reality. His anguish had little to do with the visionary reality of the surrealists. There are allusions to several contacts with André Breton’s cenacle in the diary, but they are not of an intimate nature. If Anaïs Nin identifies with surrealism in her evolution from dreaming inward to dreaming outward, and in her eventual philosophy of love as a dynamic release from the cult of self, of the luminosity of human character, and of so many other characteristics that can be identified with essential surrealism, it seems to me that it is not simply through direct influence that she reaches this luminosity and the identification of art as knowledge and revelation, but rather by being in contact with the same sources as the surrealists and by developing in the same direction as André Breton. The kind of psychoanalysis to which Anaïs Nin was introduced appears to be the same as that to which Breton was exposed at the Faculty of Medicine in Paris, based on the teachings of Pierre Janet. The distinction between Janet and Freud is precisely the distinction between psychiatry as applied in most modern novels, and the one manifest in Anaïs Nin’s observation of real life and created personalities, and as it is defined in Breton’s surrealist manifestoes: i.e. the exploration of the depth of consciousness as a power for release and domination of reality, and as a channel for the liberation of the imagination for everyman. The teachings of Janet had a tremendous influence on Breton: they showed him that the observation of the subconscious need not necessarily be motivated by the desire to correct deviations from the norm, as in pathological clinical cases: the study of the unconscious was meant better to comprehend the vistas of consciousness itself, to break the barriers of reality, to bring about a new grasp of sexuality, not in terms of neurosis but of its catalytic expansion of the sense of being and the comprehension of the metamorphoses of personality. In the Seduction of the Minotaur the probe is likened to an archeological expedition geological depths where lay hidden the imprisoned self. (p.9S)
The art and life experience of Anaïs Nin are not derivative of Breton’s but parallel, concurrent, synchronic. In trying to rejuvenate art by expanding the field of consciousness, they arrived at the same global definitions of love, liberty and poetry.
From the dream outward; it is the same image that Breton gives in his Les Vases Communicants: the dream feeds reality and actualizes desire. This is the theme of all Breton’s poems. To be a poet is to create this constant stream between the dream and what we experience when we are awake. Over this stream is the bridge by means of which the subjective world and the objective are in constant conjugation, indivisible. Soon, as Breton said there is no object, only subject. Lillian in the Seduction of the Minotaur associates her feeling with the Talmudic words: We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are. (p.124)
But the subjective vision no longer produces a hot house plant; it is projected into the outer world, there to combine with other beings, to make the inert objects unique.
The role of the novelist in this neosurrealist context becomes modified. The enigma of human personality is not resolved or reduced, but rather conveyed. There is no lucid comprehension at the end of a story but a synthesis of all the parts that have been viewed whether in quick succession or in collage, in juxtaposition or in superposition like the metaphors of a poem. The projected personality in the novel is a composite whole made up of the disparate entities that constitute a human psyche. When there is incomprehension between characters it is because they are clinging to one photograph of themselves or of each other instead of realizing the possible replacements. In explaining the alienation of Larry and Lillian in Seduction of the Minotaur the narrator says:
The passageway of their communication with each other had shrunk. They had singled out their first image of each other, to live forever, regardless of change or growth They had set it upon their desks, and within their hearts, a photograph of Larry as he had first appeared behind the garden gate, mute and hungry, and a photograph of Lillian in distress because of her faith in herself had been killed by her parents. (p.102)
In The Four Chambered Heart, Djuna’s self-analysis leads to the same kind of realization: The trap was the static pause in growth, the arrested self caught in its own web of obstinacy and obsession. (p.179)
“I is another” said Rimbaud, from whom the surrealists derived so many of their attitudes. In breaking the mirror that reflected constantly and hauntingly the single image, as we noticed in the early writings, Anaïs Nin learned from open contact with many others, from the richness of her associations, the variety implicit in the universal psyche. As we glide through her parade of recurring characters in and out of the Diary and in and out of the continuous novel, we may indeed be disappointed if we are looking for a locality of characterization. Totality means static completion. The characters of Anaïs Nin are in flux, in movement, in the process of becoming. They have, therefore, the flowing forms of Dali watches, or suggest power, rather than contour. One can indeed liken her characters to the word portrait that Breton gives of woman in L’Union libre. The relationship between characters no longer creates the effect of equaling each other, dissolving each other, but rather enriching each other. This is how the relationship between Lillian and Sabina is explained in Ladders to Fire: They both wanted to exchange bodies, exchange faces There was in both of them the dark strain of wanting to become the other, to deny what they were, to transcend their actual selves. (p.124)
What is the role that love plays in these later works? It is no longer self-adoration but a vitalizing force, projected toward the other and combining that quality that some have called “pity”, but which may be better identified with “charity”, caritas, in its etymological sense of total love, the generosity and gratuity of love, the semblance of the sacred communion. It is implicit in Breton’s love poetry, in his relationship with his last wife, Elisa in Arcane 17; it is a running motif in the last two volumes of the Diary and in the last two volumes of the Diary and in A Spy in the House of Love, and already suggested in Ladders to Fire: Not to possess each other but to become each other, not to take but to imbibe, absorb, change themselves. (p.125)
As the dream is projected into outer reality the notions of time and place undergo the same type of mutation as in surrealist writing. Chronology disappears because like Breton she is not about to give us an account of the empty moments of her life, or of the life of her characters. The critic Frank Kermode in his book Sense of Ending has well analyzed the mutation of the time factor in the experimental novel. He aptly distinguishes between the “kairos” of time, that is the dynamic moments that one can distinguish from the measured ones of chronos. It is always kairos in the Diary and in the novels of Anaïs Nin, unless she is showing the inertia of the other kind of time. There is, moreover, through the choice of highlighted events, an immediacy in the encounters of Anaïs Nin, whether in the Diary or in the novel, which make the present tense the dominant moment of action; in fact in contrast to Proust, who like the symbolists was an introspective artist, memory is cast aside by Anaïs Nin every time it interferes with the full enjoyment of the present time. Hers is a Bergsonian time duration, in which past, present, and future mingle selectively.